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Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues Paperback – September 23, 1998
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Who needs Stephen King when there are such real-life horrors as those described in Dr. Frank Ryan's new book, Virus X to keep sleep at bay? Such exotic killers as Ebola and Necrotizing Fasciitis rub elbows with more familiar, if no less potentially lethal, diseases like tuberculosis as Dr. Ryan constructs a well-researched and well-written study that reads more like a thriller than a science book. The heroes are the doctors, nurses, and patients on the frontlines of plague as well as the researchers at laboratories such as the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia; the enemies are the myriad new viruses and virulent new strains of old viruses that are emerging in ever greater numbers as this century wears to a close.
Dr. Ryan's answer for why so many plagues are ravaging the world these days is simple but chilling: a huge explosion in population (6 billion people alive today versus 1.5 billion a century ago) and the resulting destruction of habitats has brought human beings into contact with aggressive viruses that once lived beyond our reach; our global transportation systems spread them. Virus X is not the first book to raise these issues, but it's a comprehensive one, making for gripping, frightening reading.
From Publishers Weekly
The first half of Ryan's second book (after The Forgotten Plague, 1993) is a riveting nonfiction medical thriller packed with information. Ryan, a British physician, details the methodologies and personalities behind the investigations into some of the world's most deadly viral epidemics, including hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, Ebola fever and AIDS. The book's final nine chapters, however, are far less successful. In them, Ryan attempts to explain the ecological reasons for deadly outbreaks of plagues?but it quickly becomes apparent that he is not an ecologist. Not only does he subscribe to the outdated view of natural selection being red in tooth and claw, he fails to distinguish between process and outcome, referring to both natural selection and symbiosis as "natural laws" when, in fact, the latter comes about through the former. Additionally, he ventures over the poetic edge with such sentences as, "viruses have, through the empirics of evolution, become unwitting knights of nature, armed by evolution for furious genomic attack against her transgressors." The disappointing latter half of the book tarnishes but doesn't completely overshadow the earlier quality and excitement of what might have been another Hot Zone but isn't. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Viruses already exist that are uniformly fatal to people, if not treated. Rabies is one of them, but luckily for us it has a rather clunky delivery system:
"The human rabies virus lives in a symbiotic cycle with bats, from which it is capable of infecting a wide variety of mammals, particularly foxes, coyotes, jackals, and rodents...The virus is programmed to infect the brain centers in the animal that induce uncontrollable rage, while also replicating in the salivary glands to best spread the contagion through the provoked frenzy of biting."
(The bad news is that out of the 5,000+ species of mammals on our planet, a thousand species are bats, and over two thousand species are rodents.)
Another almost uniformly fatal virus with a relatively inefficient delivery system is HIV-1.
Dr. Ryan asks the question, "Could such lethal agents [HIV-1, Ebola, rabies] ever take the second step, and become sufficiently contagious to infect all or virtually all of the human species?...the only route of contagion likely to prove universally threatening to humanity would be person-to-person spread by the respiratory route."
According to Dr. Ryan, Virus X - the (so far theoretical) uniformly lethal virus would have to invade our bodies through the lungs, survive immune system attacks while making its way through the blood stream, occupy its target organs, amplify itself, and then repeat the journey in reverse to infect someone else through a cough or a sneeze.
In one of the scariest passages in his book, the author describes a virus, the 'Sin nombre' hantavirus that almost accomplished all of the above steps:
"The importance of each step in this concatenation of genesis is illustrated by the 'Sin nombre' epidemic. It was the failure of the hantavirus [on its return journey to the lungs] to cross successfully from the lining of the capillaries to the adjacent air sacs---a distance of mere microns---that prevented a lethal pandemic from originating in the United States in 1993."
"Virus X" is a gripping, well-written book by an authority on infectious diseases, and you don't necessarily have to agree with the author's theory of 'the aggressive symbiont' to be enthralled, educated, and frightened. Those men and women in the moon-suits that we see every day now on T.V. are not going to go away, Lord bless them. Let's hope they can find a way to multiply as fast as the newly emerging viruses that Dr. Ryan sees infesting our future.
This author has written another five star book called, "The Forgotten Plague - How the Battle against Tuberculosis Was Won---and Lost" which I highly recommend.
If you are interested in further reading on emerging viruses, try "The Coming Plague - Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance" by Laurie Garrett.
We've been warned.
Whenever people set about to conquer new lands, or change the landscape or ecosystem, whether intentionally (by building dams or cutting down forests) or unintentionally (as when nitrogen-rich urine from hog farms runs through groundwater into estuaries and causes the flourishing of disease-carrying algae blooms), this is likely to trigger the emergence of a new virus never before seen in humans.
This is because viruses cannot live alone; they have to have a symbiotic relationship with a host organism, like an insect, rodent, primate or human. Symbiosis, or coevolution, is where two species work together because both have something to gain from the relationship. We know that virus cannot live and replicate without a host. But what does the host have to gain from this? The idea is pretty radical: the virus helps its host defend its territory against rival species. It is as if the virus is trying to protect its "buddy", by attacking the invading species.
An example of this is many illnesses that afflict those who are in the process of cutting down the rainforest. Conversely, the replanting of forests in New England caused an explosion in the deer population, which spread Lyme disease to humans via the deer tick. When 600 Spaniards under Hernan Cortes attacked the Aztec civilization, a nation of millions, they lost the battle in terms of traditional warfare. However, the smallpox they brought with them to the New World devastated the native population. It can be said that the Europeans could never have conquered the New World if they hadn't had help from their virus buddies. Ryan gives many real life examples to prove his point that whenever we humans mess with nature's balance, we take a risk that the viruses will try to jump to a new host.
When the virus first encounters a new host, it attacks to kill. This is what we see in "emerging" viruses like Hantavirus, Lassa, and AIDS. After the most susceptible individuals die, what are left are the survivors, who will go on to coevolve with the virus. An example is the measles virus, which was extremely deadly when it first emerged during the time of the Roman Empire. Now we think of measles as a fairly minor illness. The bubonic plague was the scourge of Eurasians for centuries, now it only crops up occasionally in localized epidemics.
If you are looking for gruesome descriptions of real-life suffering and drama, you will find very little of that here. The first two-thirds of the book mostly gives a brief history of some of the notorious "new" diseases, like "Sin Nombre" Hantavirus, Ebola, and AIDS. Then we get his thesis, which is briefly outlined above.
I leave you with this quote, "Malaria and yellow fever...have probably done more to preserve the ecology of the rain forests than any aesthetic or moral scruple of man."
It's true that the second half of the book drags in places, but Ryan is explaining the science behind emerging viruses, which is complicated and thus not always an easy read. If you really want to understand how HIV or the hanta virus have managed to wipe out entire communities, including some in the most industrialized nations on earth, you will find the later chapters well worth the effort. I actually found most of this book highly engaging and feel that I now have a much better understanding of the evolutionary role viruses may play in the bigger picture of how our world came to be the way it is.
At this point in time there are quite a few books on viruses and the threats they present to humans, and many of them are more current than Virus X. Nevertheless, Virus X remains a worthwhile read, as it adds to the genre by delving more deeply into the mechanics behind epidemics. This, along with Garret's book and Karl Tao Greenfeld's "China Syndrome" are, in my view, the best books on the topic to date.